When your friends ask you what he’s like, you’ll tell them he looks like Rock Hudson, the way he chews his words like gristle and hides his smile behind his drink. You’ll tell them how he got you to quit smoking weed, his love for plaid, the fastidious way he greases and combs his hair back every morning. You won’t tell them how he finally convinced you to sleep with him, how he told you he’d never sucked dick before, how he wanted you to be his first. You remember feeling his wedding ring when he gripped your thigh. You also remember not minding.
So when he asks you to pick up his twins from school, you say yes. “When?” you ask. “At four,” he says. His old lady is out of town. He’s working until seven, can’t shake it both ways, needs you. Whenever he gets serious, Patrick squares his shoulders and cracks his knuckles. He gives you money for gas and food, tells you his daughter is going vegetarian and the boy will eat any goddamn thing. A year ago, you would’ve found him objectionably unattractive: the accent, his height, your age difference of almost two decades.
It’s 3:45 when you pull up to the school, the galvanized steel railing encircling the brick building like a rack of spears. It’s the first time you’re on time for anything. You wait outside in your ’97 Toyota Camry with the radio on and the windows rolled down. When you bought the car five years ago, the owner’s manual said the color was “beige pearl.” Now it looks like day-old shit. The interior smell has been described as part roadside motel, part Chinese buffet. A rosary chokes your rear-view mirror; it’s Patrick’s. You want to believe it lends you some form of grace.
You instantly recognize them by the shapes of their eyes, like baby Angelfish. It’s a miracle really, out of that swell of navy blue blazers and bleached dress shirts. You see Seana first and watch the daylight burnish her hair a deep tangerine as she gallops towards your car in buckled shoes, her brother sauntering behind her. You wave to them. The sleeves of your Oxford shirt are buttoned at the wrist to hide the concertina wire tattoos circling your forearms.
Seana piles in the passenger side and pumps your hand like an over-caffeinated intern. “Nice to meet you,” she says. “You’re a lot younger than I thought you’d be.”
Ciaran sits behind you, pulls out his smartphone, and says nothing. There is something violent about his eyebrows, shunting out of the broad and flat pan of his face like porcupine quills. As you shift into drive, you hear someone call the girl’s name. A nun moves to the passenger window, her habit a cut of shadow. She signs the cross with her eyes, scanning the inside of the car for evidence of your evil, and asks Seana where her mother is. Behind you, a line of waxed minivans and sedans slide away from the curb, unbothered.
“It’s okay, Sister Frances,” Seana says. “He’s a family friend.”
“He’s Dad’s special friend,” Ciaran clarifies.
The nun looks at you with a special brand of suspicion normally reserved for prison convicts and the homeless. “Remember to tell your father about the PTA meeting tomorrow,” she says. Her tone promises trouble. Questions.
You pull into a McDonald’s down the street and tell them no combos, something light so they don’t spoil their appetite. The kids are gleeful. Seana orders a Premium Bacon Ranch Salad without the bacon and soaks her greens in five packets of dressing. Ciaran orders a snack wrap stuffed with processed meat and melted cheese. “Mom never lets us eat McDonald’s,” Seana says.
“Sounds like she knows what she’s doing,” you say.
“Mom doesn’t know shit about anything,” Ciaran mutters behind you.
“She means well,” Seana says.
“She hates black people,” Ciaran snarls.
“She’s afraid of them,” his sister corrects.
“Mexicans, too,” he adds. “She says they’re the reason why people are unemployed and the economy sucks.”
Exhaust blooms in front of you as a dinged pickup hiccups out of the drive-thru.
“She hates you and Dad the most,” Ciaran says.
Before you met Patrick, you suffered from insomnia and worked for your Vietnamese landlady as a private English tutor. She lived down the street next to the 24-hour convenience store her husband owned, manned by their child army. You felt sorry for their children the same way you felt sorry for the shackled animals in the PETA commercials, the skeletal horses and kittens with fur like ripped Velcro. You think it’s because your family came from the same country. Pushed you the same way.
Your high school guidance counselor, Mr. Oswald, had a bald spot that dilated in the morning sun. He was arrested for molesting your best friend your junior year. He told you once that he believed in you. It should’ve made you sad that he was the only one, but it didn’t. You knew you’d leave eventually – southern California, your parents, the friends you took for granted. Forty class credits and twenty-five thousand dollars in student loans later, you’re back. The house you grew up in is no longer there. Neither are your parents.
As you make your way onto the 405-S onramp, the sun tie-dying the sky ochre and lavender, you try to give the twins a crash course in secular education. You tell them that the Avengers are whack and that the X-Men are the first and only superhero team to challenge the heterosexist, uniracial society of the West. You talk about the Milgram experiment and warn them about the dangers of authority. You promise them that Simone de Beauvoir, Henry Miller, and Lao-Tzu will change their lives forever. You forget that they’re only twelve. When Seana asks you if you really love her daddy, you tell her yes even though you’ve yet to say it to anyone and mean it.
You take them to your apartment. The heating in Patrick’s place still hasn’t been fixed and the last time you were there, you found a family of rats in his kitchen. Your apartment unit isn’t exactly immaculate either, but you at least strive for some semblance of hygiene. That morning before you left to pick up Seana and Ciaran from school, you spent nearly two hours cleaning your place: laundering the sheets, towels, and bathmats; mopping the floors; hiding the cap vials of poppers and packets of lubricant. When you let them inside, Ciaran comments that your place smells like a new car. You tell the kids to get started on their homework as you prepare for dinner.
Two hours later, Patrick arrives and finds you in the living room sandwiched between his children, watching Louis C.K. on your laptop. The pot roast is simmering on the stove and the tang of beef slow-cooked in onions, garlic, and red wine fills the apartment. You nudge them both off the sofa to go say hi to their daddy. Patrick snorts into their hair, girdling their narrow shoulders with arms like low-hanging tree branches. “How was school?” he asks them.
“We drew Punnett squares and mated fruit flies,” Seana says.
“I got kicked out of choir,” Ciaran announces.
Patrick looks at you. “And how was your day?”
The question barely reaches you under the weight of its meaning. The both of you have traversed into unfamiliar territory under uncertain terms and you imagine telling him there are stranger families in the world, that you can handle this, that you want to. His kids are adorable and, for some reason, they like you. But in the four months you’ve been together, his wife still hasn’t filed for the divorce papers. And parenthood? Appearances aside, you’re still making sense of your own life and you’ve always been a slow learner. But the kids are looking at you and waiting for an answer too, so you kiss him and tell him exactly what they want to hear.
It was the mid-nineties. You were sixteen. All of the white kids at school were listening to The Smashing Pumpkins, the malcontents to Marilyn Manson, and you and your minority friends had Public Enemy. Everyone believed the end was nigh: Kurt Cobain and Tupac, the Oklahoma City bombing, the summer heat wave that killed seven hundred plus Chicagoans, Hurricane Gordon, fucking Beavis and Butt-head. All signs seemed to point towards south of hell, which you had on good authority existed somewhere in the sweltering San Fernando Valley where your best friend Wei Long made headlines and got himself killed. He dropped out of school after Mr. Oswald touched his dick and ended up joining the ABZ Crips soon after. The two of you spent your weeknights getting loaded on the poor man’s speedball and shoplifting Walmarts. You stopped calling after he started carrying his .38 on your runs.
There was no funeral, but you buried a shoebox where Wei Long had presumably taken his last steps. “He went out like a true O.G.,” his boys told you. “Guns ablazing, real Western shit.” You filled that shoebox with his favorite CDs; a gram of Jack Herer sealed in a zip lock snack bag; your old Zelda Nintendo cartridge, the sparkly gold-plated one that’d become a collector’s item, just like he’d predicted; new Nikes; a few condoms. You wanted him to have some real shit for the afterlife, things he could remember so he wouldn’t have to come back and haunt you for being an uncaring asshole.
You were on a real horror kick back then, devouring Stephen King and Clive Barker in between binge-reading comic books and jerking off to gay porn sites that took half an hour to load on the dial-up. You wanted to believe in real evil, the kind that drank blood, walked through walls, and lived in the dark. Sunday Mass used to terrify you. The Pauline epistles gave you nosebleeds every time. You couldn’t explain it. Your parents were convinced you had cancer. When the CAT scans revealed nothing abnormal and your doctor diagnosed you with somatoform disorder, they attributed it to an overactive imagination.
“White people make up disorders to excuse their weakness,” Dad told you. He blamed himself for the laxity in your life. That summer, he prescribed a strict regimen of SAT prep classes, private tennis lessons, and physical labor. You spent your weekends working on a dude ranch in Riverside County, where you learned how to horseback ride and mend fences with baling wire. It was also where you lost your virginity.
The ranch’s guesthouse where you stayed sat atop a dumpy hillock. Wind and rain had dashed grass, rush milkweed, and brittlebush into crusted streaks of yellow and green across the knoll. The younger hands called it the Vomit Dollop. Sometimes, when the moon opened its carriage and spilled its old silver over the Santa Rosa Mountains’ twisted and rumpled spine, you’d slip naked onto the hidden path that wound through a copse of blue oaks behind the house, the wind brushing against the turns of your hipbones, the cool grass like soft glass beneath your feet. You still think about that place sometimes, the gamboling shadows and rust-colored thickets springing from the meaty earth.
The owner’s wife’s nephew was working off his community service hours at the ranch that summer. “Petty larceny charges,” he told you and you thought that must’ve been the attraction, the mutual deviancy. But it was really his ass. He had one of those white boy hams that no pair of jeans could ever suppress, that waggled even in repose. You dreamed about that ass, biting it, kneading it like dough. Everyone was always touching him, his neck and arms and shoulders, and it used to piss you off. Not because of any jealousy or sense of ownership, but because of what they’d say when he wasn’t around: he’s got a butter face, that’s why he works out so much; he’s got a small dick; he never showers.
One night the nephew followed you into the woods. There was no fanfare, no talking. He kissed you, stripped, and the two of you rolled around trying everything your porn-instructed mind could think of. You remember thinking how ticklish you were, how rough his skin felt. He made you come in five minutes, your fingers gripping his hair like a steering wheel, but you still wanted more. When you asked him if he had a condom, he told you not to worry about it. “I’m clean,” he said, which you came to understand meant he was both STD-free and had had an enema. Finally, that ass was yours.
Good sex, you discovered, was addictive. You’d spend the entire week anticipating that Friday evening when Dad would drop you off at the guesthouse for the weekend. You tried for some measure of restraint at first, working all day with a mad case of blue balls like a pair of dumbbells swinging between your legs. After he scheduled his shifts to coincide with yours, you couldn’t keep your hands off of each other. It got bad; he grew cavalier and you grew careless. The both of you were late to everything, always together. People took notice as your silent staring contests and mutual game of grab ass got a little too frequent, a little too familiar.
It wasn’t long before the stable boy spotted the hickeys stitching the side of your neck. The trail girl overheard him calling you babe. It didn’t mean anything until one of the trail guides caught the two of you in the barn, sucking each other dry in a makeshift bed of hay. On that last night together, you begged him to leave with you. “We can be together,” you said, your breath hitching in the dark as he quietly listened. You told him your desperate, eleventh-hour plan, how the two of you could leave for the Bay that night, find work as baristas or drive-thru cashiers, fuck your brains out and be accountable to no one. Just, try.
Seana blinks at the mirror. She looks like a kabuki demon. It doesn’t help that your bathroom walls are papered with cherry blossoms and the windowsill is lined with a procession of Buddha statues. You can hear the boys down the hallway cheer and scream. You suspect that you’ll never understand Patrick’s love for boxing. Seana doesn’t understand it either, and after dinner, when she told you she’d never put on makeup before because the school and her mother disapproved, you took it upon yourself to teach her the ways of womanhood. You have no experience with this sort of thing, but you’d secretly hoped that being gay afforded you some natural talent at makeup. It didn’t.
“We can try again,” you say doubtfully.
“I look like that one actress,” she says. “You know, the one all the boys like.”
“Oh yeah,” you say. “The girl from that one movie. So hot.”
Seana laughs. “Can you do my hair next?”
The glare of the fluorescent lights cruelly spotlights the carnival horror of her face, but she’s enjoying herself and you’re surprised to discover that you are too. You grab Patrick’s sculpting gel and the twenty-dollar hair straightener you picked up at the corner store with the mascara and rouge.
“I read on the Internet that you can pierce your own ears with a pin and an ice cube,” she says.
“Not tonight, Seana.”
“Because I don’t want to be responsible for giving you an ear infection,” you say. “Now stop moving your head.”
Every Sunday, your mother used to spend four hours prepping for mass. You and your father were barred from the master bedroom as she waxed, showered, tweezed, and burrowed in her closet. Your mother had an old phonograph she’d inherited from her great-grandmother and only two records survived the test of time: Frank Crumit’s “True Blue Sam (the Traveling Man)” and Elsa Murray Shelly’s performance of Chopin’s “Etude in E”. She always played them right before she’d emerge from the bedroom, dressed in a long silk dress with her hair tied so far back it made her forehead shine like plastic. You knew that etude by heart. Even now Chopin’s silver melodies never fail to evoke the smell of your father’s pipe, the whistle of a tea kettle, and the spice of ginger snaps pulled fresh from the oven. As much as you hated church, you loved Sundays. It was the only time when neither of your parents felt the need to talk about how you were fucking up your life somehow.
“What did you want to be when you were a kid?” she asks.
“A superhero,” you say. “Tight spandex in primary colors, a girlfriend, telekinesis.”
“A girlfriend, really?” she giggles, opening her eyes.
“I was young.” You shrug. “I thought girlfriends were like personal assistants you’d occasionally kiss for doing a good job.”
“I don’t think that’s very far off.”
“You’re too young to think that way,” you say.
“As if you know anything about having a girlfriend.”
“Don’t they teach you to respect your elders at Jesus camp?”
She grins at you, all teeth and lipstick. Seana has that same special sincerity that drew you to her father, the remarkable way she unremarkably sets people at ease. You remember how Patrick strolled up to you at the bar, sat down beside you without introduction, and asked you how you were as if you’d known each other for years. Everyone else there was shopping for meat, staring at each other through the flickering strobe lights to gauge the likelihood of a hot, unattached fuck. The two of you discussed Celtic punk, the worst sports to watch on television, how dogs were better than cats. That night, he didn’t ask you to go home with him; he gave you his number. You still have the napkin.
“I wanted to be a nun when I was younger,” Seana says. “Travel all over the world to help starving people and children without shoes. Like Mother Theresa.”
“What changed your mind?” you ask her.
“I met Sister Frances.”
“What’s wrong with Sister Frances? You know, beyond the obvious.”
“Nothing, other than the fact that she’s like every other Catholic,” she says. “She’s against abortion, gay marriage, women in the priesthood, Harry Potter…”
“And this surprised you because?”
“Because she should be better than that,” she shouts, startling the both of you.
There’s a knock on the door and Patrick comes in to ask if either you or Seana would like some ice cream. He nearly chokes when he sees her, and behind him, Ciaran falls to the floor howling with laughter. You’re immediately at her defense, telling them both to close the goddamn door and pick up some butter pecan for you. Patrick dutifully tells Seana that she looks beautiful before quickly ushering his son out of the hallway. On the bathroom counter, Mick Jagger is singing his hope that the Lord will shine a light on you. His voice is tinny through your phone’s mp3 player, as if he swallowed a fistful of tin foil.
“You won’t get anywhere in life if you’re constantly disappointed in people,” you say gently. “We’re all fuck-ups.”
“I know that,” Seana says, her fingers clenching her plaid skirt. “It’s just, I don’t know what I want to be anymore.”
“That’s okay, you know.”
“Yeah,” she replies, unconvinced.
“Listen, go to college,” you tell her. “It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll find what you’re looking for, but it can’t hurt to learn more. Just make sure you get as far away from your parents as possible. Get your heart broken a few times, travel to some place you’ve only seen on television, don’t stop for anyone. Once you’ve done all those things, we’ll pick up this conversation again.”
She smiles at you and it’s sad and a little comical with all that face-paint caking her face. “I never would’ve pegged you for a romantic.”
“Most people wouldn’t.”
A month before that night, Patrick asked if you knew of any affordable tattoo parlors. It was Sunday morning. He was wearing his favorite greasy wife beater and your Mickey Mouse boxer shorts, hair unkempt, cooking scrambled eggs on your stain-crusted stovetop with a wilted cigarette in his mouth. NPR was featuring yet another exposé on the Church. On the table were two empty handles of Jagermeister and a coffee cup overflowing with cigarette butts. You told Patrick that you knew a few places, but warned him that if he wasn’t absolutely certain what he wanted, he ought to wait.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” he said.
“It’s not a crucifix, is it?”
“Do you want toast? The bread’s a few days past the sell date, a little stale but it tastes okay.”
“If you get a tribal, I’m taking back my keys,” you said.
He handed you your plate, stamped out his cigarette, and lit another. “For your information, I’m getting a tribal cross with ‘Carpe Diem’ in capital letters,” he said, snaking a hand down your shirt. “Maybe a couple of shamrocks, too.”
You closed your eyes and leaned back. His aftershave smelled like lavender. Outside, a car alarm blared. Pale yellow light stretched across the tiled floor and you thought you could smell the salt of the Pacific through the open windows.
It was noon by the time you both got out of the apartment. A young Chinese family was picnicking at the park across the street. You hoped that they checked the grass for needles and broken glass before rolling out their Pottery Barn tablecloth. The kids were young enough to be innocent, but old enough to know better, wiping their hands with napkins and helping their parents toss trash into the waste bin nearby. You remarked how precious they looked in their canary yellow sweaters and cardinal red sneakers. Though you mistrusted happy looking families, you couldn’t help but want what you saw.
You took him to a little brick house parlor in Eagle Rock. The pregnant receptionist with a safety pin through her nose gave Patrick the procedural form. She then told you how she landed this job by way of the owner who’d been in her father’s platoon during the Vietnam War. Her safety pin caught sunlight and quivered like a sprung trap as she leaned over the counter.
“So, how long have you guys been dating?” she asked.
You asked her if it was obvious that you two were a couple. You told her that most people couldn’t tell.
“The way your eyes keep moving back to each other,” she said, tracing invisible lines with her index fingers between you and Patrick.
Old Porter – the seventy-year-old owner and tattoo artist who inked all three of your tattoos – trundled out of the back office and barked at the girl to stop bothering his customers. He opened his arms and told you to get your queer ass over there and give him a hug. It was a balmy seventy-five degrees outside, but he still insisted on wearing the camel-hair coat you got him from the Salvation Army a couple of years ago. The tattoos inked across his scalp had blurred over time, the images bleeding together into a faded swirl of colors like an Impressionist painting.
“Porter, there’s someone I want you to meet,” you said.
Patrick extended his hand and introduced himself. Porter shook it, but said nothing. Porter furrowed his brows and drew back his front lip, revealing three missing teeth and purple gums. He dropped Patrick’s hand and asked you if you were planning on getting your fourth tattoo today.
“No, but Patrick’s thinking about his first,” you told him.
“So what do you want, Paddy?” he asked. “Celtic Cross? How about a shamrock?”
Patrick blushed and stammered. “Uh, no, I was thinking about…”
“Because I got to tell you, I’m sick of you micks coming in here and asking for the same goddamn tattoos,” Porter said, crossing his arms. “Just the other day, this Irish fuck comes in here and asks me to ink him an arm sleeve of fucking shamrocks. A sleeve of shamrocks. Christ on a pogo stick. We’re tattoo artists, Paddy, emphasis on the word artists. So if you’re thinking of getting a clover on your mick ass, get it somewhere else.”
The first time you’d gone in for a tattoo, Porter had called you a slope and a gook, told you that he’d killed a dozen of your uncles and aunts during the war, and he didn’t want your fucking yellow business in his establishment. You’d replied by telling him to step outside because he was about to get his ass handed him to him by a Vietnamese faggot. That was how your friendship began. You’d wanted Patrick to earn Porter’s approval the same way you had, but for a moment, you wondered if you should have warned him first.
“Yeah, I do want a goddamn shamrock you fucking asshole,” Patrick said. “And if you call me a mick one more time, I’ll fucking bury your fat old ass, friend or not.”
Porter paused and looked at you. “I like this one.”
“He ain’t too bad,” you agreed.
“What?” Patrick asked.
“So you really want that shamrock or was that just your blood talking?”
The tattoo was a quote. You helped Patrick choose the font. It was French and he told you that he’d translate it for you once it was done. Due to its size and the amount of shading involved, it took nearly two hours. The entire time Porter yakked and yakked as the needle gun droned like a hungry mosquito and small beads of blood blossomed across Patrick back. Porter talked about how he met you and how much you reminded him of the son he’d lost to AIDS.
“Wasn’t afraid of nothing, my boy,” Porter said. “Full of piss and vinegar.”
“How do you move on from something like that?” Patrick asked. “I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to either of my kids.”
“I knew I did right by him,” Porter said, leaning into Patrick’s back as he rubbed the needle into the outline of a letter. “It took me a while to accept it, but our kids have lives outside of ours, as much as we try to make it otherwise.”
It took you nearly two hours to get to the west side from northeastern Los Angeles. A rig had crashed into the highway median barrier. The semi-trailer’s fifth wheel coupling had detached from the rig’s kingpin and lay on its side with its ridged belly ripped open. White fabric spilled out and the police had set up a line of flares that cut off the three rightmost lanes. On the other side of the highway, eastbound traffic was completely halted. Two EMTs slowly picked up a body covered in a white sheet and set it on a stretcher. A slab of concrete had smashed through the windshield of the sedan behind the rig. A man in a yellow polo shirt and grey capris squatted on the shoulder with officers on either side of him, his face buried in his hands.
As you pulled the car into the parking garage, Patrick said, “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait.”
You looked at his clenched brow, the locked jaw. The tension in his forehead could squeeze water out of rocks. It scared you how beautiful he looked in his remoteness, like a mountain stabbing into the sky from the distance, forever out of reach. The radio warbled out a Miles Davis number, filling the car with sweet strains of trumpet. You wondered when you’d finally get to meet his children. He’d told you their names, their age, Seana’s grades, and Ciaran’s obsession with anime. Would he still want to be with you if they didn’t like you? Should he?
“What does it mean?” you asked.
“If youth only knew; if old age only could.”
When the boys return with ice cream, you light candles around the apartment and turn off the lights. You suggest watching a movie before bed. Seana wants to watch something foreign. Ciaran requires a certain amount of violence. As always, Patrick is open to suggestions. You settle for a Kurosawa film. Seana keeps her makeup on despite her brother’s constant teasing and the four of you clean out the entire bucket of butter pecan in the first half hour. It takes another hour into Ran before the kids start to yawn. Patrick tells them to get ready for bed and if they want to shower to save some hot water for him. As he sets up the futon, you tell him that the kids are taking the bedroom tonight and the two of you will be camping out in the living room.
“Are you sure?” Patrick asks. “You hate this futon.”
“What are you talking about? I love this lumpy, itchy mattress. We can pretend it’s the frontier and we’re roughing it like cowboys or something.”
“You’re kind of weird amazing,” he says and maybe it’s the trick of the laptop light, but his eyes look glassy to you.
“I know, I’m the tits,” you say. “Smoke a cigarette?”
“Go ahead, I’m going to grab your pillows from the bedroom first.”
“What will the kids use?” you ask.
“Each other for all I care,” he says, heading down the hallway. “They’re getting the bed tonight.”
Ciaran returns to the living room with a toothbrush jammed in his mouth to ask if you have a smartphone charger. “I forgot to pack mine,” he says.
You direct him to the charger plugged in the kitchen next to the coffee maker and tell him that he can find extra towels in the hallway closet. You grab Patrick’s sweatshirt, your lighter and pack of smokes and head out the door. As you’re closing it, you hear Ciaran ask, “Whoa, is that a real samurai sword?”
“Don’t take it out of the sheath,” you yell inside.
“What’s a sheath?”
“Is it real?” Ciaran asks, coming to the door.
“Yeah, my great grandfather made it and passed it down to my grandfather and so forth and so on,” you say.
“Cool,” Ciaran whispers, fingering the silver scabbard.
“I’m joking, you nitwit. I’m not Japanese.”
“But is it real?” he asks again.
You take the sword from him and slowly pull out the two-foot blade. You tell him it’s actually a wakizashi, a companion blade to the longer samurai sword. “It’s real steel,” you say, showing him the Kanji inscription near the hilt. “That’s the maker’s name.”
“Can it cut stuff?”
“Go get a napkin,” you tell him.
Ciaran dashes inside and returns with a single napkin. Blade side up, you tell him to gently place it on top. “Gently,” you repeat.
He gingerly places the napkin on top and squeals as the paper slices neatly in half. “Holy shit, that’s so cool! Where did you get this?”
“Germany of all places,” you say. “Remind me to tell you about it someday.”
“Okay,” he says, suddenly awkward. “Uh, thanks for having us over tonight. It was a lot of fun.”
“I had fun too,” you say, sliding the sword back in its sheath before handing it to him. “Go hang it back up for me, alright? And be careful.”
You close the door behind him and light a cigarette. It must be fifty-five outside tonight, cold for California. The stars look like shattered glass rubbed across dark purple quilt and you can hear the roll of traffic on the 405-S ebbing and flowing.
Wei Long told you once that all parents secretly hated their children. Parents committed abominable acts under the guise of love all the time, and you were simply the product of your mother and father’s need to procreate, nothing more. The two of you were in his beat-up Civic in front of your house, smoking cigarettes and rummaging through that night’s stolen merchandise: CDs, books, a radar detector, packets of AA batteries, a new designer shampoo he’d wanted to try. You never asked about the purple bruises taping his forearms and his busted lip. You didn’t need to.
You’re only halfway through your cigarette when Patrick and his kids come outside. The twins wish you goodnight and you tell them that you’ll see them tomorrow.
“Are you picking us up again?” Seana asks you.
“I’ll be your ride tomorrow, little lady,” Patrick says. When they head inside, you remind Patrick that he has a PTA meeting tomorrow.
“Better lay out your nice suit tonight,” you say, handing him your cigarette. “You lost some points today when you asked your gay lover to pick up your kids.”
He drags it and pitches the burning butt into the parking lot below. “I have half a mind to pull the both of them out of that fucking school. God knows neither of them are happy there.”
“Your old lady would rather kill them first. Their only hope is college.”
“Don’t I know it,” Patrick says, hunching forward to hang his forearms over the balcony railing. “So, have you decided to dump me yet?”
“Why, because you didn’t do the dishes again?” you ask.
“Well that, and getting roped into daycare duty. I know it’s not ideal, being with someone who has children. And a bitch wife to boot.”
You think about the clock maker you met in Berlin; the teaching assistant in your sophomore literature course who spoke seven different languages; your former roommate who joined the Peace Corps and never came back. You remember little things about all of them, tokens of memory that would occasionally resurface to the forefront of your mind like old photographs you’ve forgotten: how the clock maker took his coffee, the teaching assistant’s translation of Pablo Neruda’s Captain’s Verses, how your roommate’s left eye was a darker shade of green than his right. But you don’t remember any of their names, not even the farm boy you loved so many summers ago. It was easier to live that way, sawing away the parts that make you feel and expecting nothing from anyone.
“I wouldn’t worry about the kids,” you say, jabbing his side. “I’d be more concerned about your age. What’s going to happen when you can’t get it up anymore?”
Patrick moves behind you and squeezes you close. “Want to go for a test drive?” he growls into your ear.
Finally, a relevant question.
The ranch owner’s wife ended up telling your father about what you did and your mother couldn’t bring herself to look at you. The conversation you had with them would have broken your heart had it not been broken already. In the end, the nephew chose to stay at the ranch. Your last fuck had felt like death, the end of all ends. You couldn’t forget the weight of his body curled up against yours, the rise and fall of his chest underneath your arm, the way he always smelled like grass. When your parents handed you a brochure for the Christian conversion camp, you made plans to leave the country. The money you’d saved working at the ranch was just enough for a one-way ticket to Heathrow Airport.
The week leading up to your flight, you spent every evening at the matinee. They were showing Godard’s films that fall and the only other people there were old, married couples you envied, holding hands and sipping diet soda. You thought about the nephew as you lusted after Jean-Pierre Léaud. How would it have gone had you told him how you felt instead of assuming he’d divined it on his own? Would it have ended differently had you pushed first?
You took a taxi to LAX at two in the morning with a single backpack stuffed with underwear, socks, your only dress shirt, a travel guide you stole from the library, and a carton of cigarettes you’d convinced one of your classmate’s older siblings to buy for you. You’d never seen the 405-S so empty. You thought of the river Ameles in Plato’s Republic as the stretch of highway unfurled beneath you, pulling everyone you’d ever known behind it: your mom and dad, Wei Long, the nephew. As the plane lifted from the runway and Los Angeles opened like a glittering jewel box below, you promised yourself that you wouldn’t give yourself so completely to anyone ever again. Not unless he was worth it.
You decide to have sex in your car because neither of you feel comfortable fucking in the living room while the kids are sleeping in your bedroom. The logistics are a little tricky. Patrick’s frame takes up too much space and your head keeps bumping into the roof handgrip. You idly wish that you drove a minivan. But eventually, you forget all of this as your prostate starts to hum with his rhythm inside you. Patrick tells you again and again how tight your ass is, punctuating his statements with grunts like a bad porn script. He’s the only lover you’ve been with who verbalizes during sex. You’ve always found it slightly embarrassing how much it turns you on when he asks you how badly you want his dick, and tonight is no exception. You come without touching yourself, which is a first.
Once you’ve both recovered your ability to string complete sentences together, you tell Patrick that you’ve never done that before. It all felt very high school.
“I lost my virginity in the back of my brother’s sedan,” he tells you, wiping you down with his shirt. “I don’t even remember what she looked like, I had my eyes shut the entire time.”
“How old were you?”
“No wonder, what?” he asks.
“That it wasn’t a challenge for you to get hard.”
“It helped that my teammate was watching us from the passenger seat,” Patrick winks.
You laugh. “You’re so fucking perverted.”
“You love it,” he says, running his fingers down your chest. “And I bet you were downright depraved as a teenager, rutting boys left and right. Orgies, older men, tearooms.”
“Nice to finally know what you think of me.”
“Well, how’d you lose your cherry?”
You touch the tattoo on Patrick’s back, reading the raised letters with your fingers like braille. You feel like a river climbing uphill, leaving the things you would no longer carry in its shoals with the past and present on opposing shores. Your parents showed you exactly who you weren’t. Wei Long taught you not to follow trauma’s misdirection. The nephew testified the difference between love and passion, and how neither should be blind. And in the past twelve hours, you determined that Ciaran would benefit from exposure to hip-hop and Seana was in desperate need of a new wardrobe. You learned that Patrick needed you as much as you were afraid to need him. You discovered a family of your own.
You begin your story with, “It was the mid-nineties.”
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Lam Pham is a native Texan and received his BA in English at the University of California, Los Angeles. He received his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Wyoming. He is a Pushcart Prize nominated author and his fiction has appeared in various publications.